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Far from Neighbors

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

June 16, 2019
Romans 5:1-5

Audio not available.

A Reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.


If you were here last week, you know that last week was Pentecost, the day that we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the gathered disciples in Jerusalem some weeks after Jesus’s death and resurrection. It’s a fabulous occasion to give thanks, and with many thanks to the Congregational Connections committee we celebrated well with a picnic after church and hot dogs and snacks and lemonade and you all wore red for Pentecost and you really turned out for that one, it was sea of red. And of course one of the natural reasons that we celebrate is because Pentecost feels like the end of this season of touchstone stories in the Christian life, almost back to Christmas, and Jesus’s baptism, and Transfiguration, and then through Lent into Holy Week and Easter and the Resurrection appearances and then finally Pentecost, this huge chunk of the year that we spend with such rich stories drawn from the very foundations of the Gospels.

Today, by contrast, is Trinity Sunday, known universally throughout Christendom as the day that nobody entirely knows what to do with. As far as I can tell there are no Trinity Sunday after-church picnics, nobody got up this morning and thought, “Oh, I have to get to church today, I don’t want to miss Trinity Sunday!” We didn’t all conspire to, like, wear triangles. And of course part of the reason for the notorious unglamorousness of Trinity Sunday is that this day doesn’t really have a story. The Trinity is not an event that takes place somewhere in the Gospels or in the Book of Acts; there is no moment where Jesus shows up and says, “look, in some ways there’s one of me, and in some ways there’s three of me, and here’s what you can do with that information.” By comparison to the tongues of fire that sweep through Pentecost morning, there’s not much here that makes for good narrative pathos.

If the Trinity does have a story, it’s not one found in scripture; instead, it’s the story of the early church trying to piece together who God is based on the scriptures it was handed. The New Testament doesn’t draw one picture of one God in three persons. Instead, it makes all these loaded casual references. I and the Father are one, Jesus says, which is already curious on its face. But then this Holy Spirit shows up. It shows up at Jesus’s baptism. It shows up on Pentecost. It shows up in Paul’s letters, like in this morning’s piece from Romans. So who’s one now? Which one of you goes with the other? Which one of you is in charge? And are you all really that different? If you want the story of Trinity Sunday, it’s really a story of centuries of theologians trying to figure out how put these pieces into a system, with major cultural baggage on the line each way you turn because of the way it pulls on old tensions between monotheistic and polytheistic practices. The story of Trinity Sunday is the story of four centuries of the early church yelling back and forth at one another — Three Gods! No, One God! No, Three Gods! No, One God!, and then finally at the First Council of Constantinople, exhausting themselves into the compromise we call the Doctrine of the Trinity. Three Gods AND One God. Somehow.

Notwithstanding the mystery of that “somehow,” this has been a pretty durable compromise. It’s very much still alive, sixteen centuries later; it lives on in our liturgy every time we say One God, Creator, Son, Holy Ghost; or Father, Son, Holy Spirit, One God, Mother of us All. But in more recent decades, Trinitarian thought has made something of a comeback not just as a bandage over an old scar, but rather as something beautiful about the God we worship. Writing in the 1960s, theologian Jurgen Moltman famously argues that the interrelationship of these three persons, Creator, Son, Holy Spirit, the way they co-exist, the way they orbit one another, the way they almost dance through the unfolding of history, Moltman argues that this Trinitarian dance tells us something about the very essence of God, namely that something like community and equal relationship exist at the very core of the God we worship. Yahweh tells the Israelites “I am the Lord your God, the Lord alone,” by which we normally understand that God is the only God Israel is entitled to worship. But it is almost as if Moltman hears God saying something a little different there, and offers the Trinity as a response. God’s not alone, Moltman says. God has been with God, three persons, dancing around, this whole time.
No theology is separate from the time in which it emerges and Moltman’s counter to the loneliness of God — which is, to be sure, my language, and not his — but Moltman’s theology seems entirely born of the modern moment. We live in a time when there is something of an epidemic of loneliness. John Cacioppo is the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and has been studying loneliness for a long time. He cites studies reporting that in the 1970s and 1980s between 11 and 20 percent of Americans regularly or frequently felt lonely. In 2010, that number was between 40 and 45 percent. Do a Google search for “modern loneliness” or “modern isolation” and you will find dozens upon dozens of articles, newspaper stories, peer-reviewed studies, and academic essays attempting to make sense of this paradox of our time, that more and more of us live surrounded by people than at any time in human history, and, at the same time, more and more of us feel alone.

Loneliness used to look very different. Amelia Worsely has written a history of loneliness in which she observes that the term itself used to be basically a geographic descriptor. If you were too far away from the protections of the city or the town you could be in loneliness, a place where you could be victim to natural disaster or unkind stranger. In 1674, the naturalist John Ray defined it simply as a characteristic of people and places “far from neighbors.” Of course that hardly seems the case anymore, where the prototype of loneliness in 2019 is not someone wandering through the desert all by themselves but rather lost in a new city, lost in a new workplace, lost in a new school, surrounded by coworkers, colleagues, party-goers, family members, friends, loved ones, whoever it may be. This new loneliness — and all of the consequences that come with it, physiological effects, emotional effects, it interferes with sleep, it raises blood pressure, all of it — this new loneliness feels like an entirely different breed.

And yet the neurology of it may be as old as humanity itself. Cacioppo describes loneliness as an adaptive neurological response to exclusion. The group survives better together; if you run afoul of the rules you might get sent away; loneliness kicks in — in his words, “it’s very much like physical pain or hunger. It’s an aversive cue that alerts you to pay attention.” It’s designed to alert you that you no longer benefit from the protection of the group, sometimes even reducing your desire to break back into the group out of fear of retribution. All of which means that loneliness isn’t about not knowing how to make friends, or how to mingle at parties, or how to say the right thing on Instagram, or about just not being properly socialized into whatever the etiquette of the moment might be. What it means is that loneliness is at least as much a function of institutions that exclude as it is a result of any individual’s disposition. People feel lonely because institutions make them feel lonely. People feel lonely because they don’t have anywhere to feel safe.

Of course, the church has not always had a good record when it comes to making people feel safe. Nonetheless, it feels like we should have a tremendous role in helping create the sort of communities where loneliness might eventually dissipate. Churches are one of the very few places in modern American society where people can form significant relationships outside of family, particularly intergenerational relationships; we know something about tribe and fellowship and community that I think is harder and harder to find. What’s more, we know that the story of the triune God we worship is fundamentally a story about community, about these three persons dancing with one another and holding one another and wrapped around one another since the very beginning. We should have something to say about loneliness because we have something to say about this God who takes the idea of family into her very being.

But even more than that. It is not just that the Trinity keeps God from being alone. It keeps us from being alone. True, there’s nowhere in the New Testament that lays the trinity out as a theological system, but here in Romans, Paul is pretty clear that God is using every means at God’s disposal to be with us and to be for us. “We have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We access God’s grace by sharing in God’s glory.
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It’s not quite an exhaustive flowchart of how all this is supposed to come together. But maybe, instead, it’s a story. Maybe it’s a story about God seeking us with every tool in the drawer. Maybe it’s a story about Jesus Christ walking with us every step along the way. Maybe it’s a story about the Holy Spirit surrounding us and lifting us up no matter where we go and how we turn and how we fall. Maybe there’s a story here after all, a story about the Triune God who wants you to know, no matter what, that you never need feel entirely alone.

This is the Gospel. None of you, not one of you ever need feel alone. I know it is not as simple as hearing those words. I know loneliness isn’t something you choose. I know loneliness isn’t something you learn your way out of. And I know you can feel it anywhere, surrounded by friends and family, even here, even
in the pews of this place, even right now, even in a church that should make you feel safe, especially in a church that has not always done its part. The awful weight of this modern loneliness is that you can sit here surrounded by folks who very much want to embrace you and still feel terribly alone. But I want you to know, especially as we prepare to come to the table. Especially as we prepare for communion this morning in the presence of God the creator of all things. Especially as we prepare to eat alongside Jesus Christ who has broken bread with us all along the way. Especially as we prepare to join in the sacrament alongside the Holy Spirit who joins us with saints of every time and place. I want you to know that the Triune God, Creator, Son, Holy Spirit, is with you, now, always, and especially here at this table. Especially here at this table. You are welcome. You are loved. You are known. You are among friends. You are among family. You are a child of God.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.